A/N: Normally I post a story or a new chapter and am met with a few reviews and a follow or favorite here or there. That's all fine and dandy! I still smile on receiving every one. But I was astounded at the number of follower notifications I received on posting my last chapter of The Meaning of Christmas. Ultimately, I'm glad you all are liking this story, and thank you so much for taking the time to read it! I hope I'm doing The X-Files justice in my attempted writings.
So thank you, all, again!
The change of scenery helped. It was like the old saying said: out of sight, out of mind. The dining room had been a setting that demanded it's occupants remain at attention. The bright light emanating from the small chandelier ensured that no action went unobserved. Straight-backed chairs and a rigid dining table gave the impression of professionalism and severity even despite the casual conversations that had filtered through the air.
Things were much more relaxed in the dimmed glow of the living room. As before, only a few lamps were lit so that the brilliantly-colored tree would remain the center of attention. And the cushy chairs and couch were very welcome after a few hours of sitting on flat-bottomed, wooden seats. Well, that was true for everyone except for Charlie. Being the youngest Scully, he was the odd man out and forced to fetch one of the dining chairs for himself because the remainder of the seating space was utterly occupied.
Mulder was practically swallowed by leather as he leaned back against the center cushion of the couch. Scully had resumed her earlier seat to his right while Tara sat to his left. Feeling like an airplane passenger wedged into the dreaded middle seat of a plane's center aisle, he made sure he kept his elbows tucked into his sides and his hands resting in his lap. But despite the minor discomfiture from the awkward position, he was pleased. The cozy setting coupled with his full stomach and customary fatigue set him on track to dozing off in front of the whole Scully family. He really wanted to avoid that if at all possible. Scully would never let him live it down, teasing him mercilessly for the remainder of their partnership.
He wondered if he should excuse himself to bed, but quickly reconsidered when he remembered that Scully would be joining him in that bed. There was nothing more awkward than trying to tiptoe silently into a room where someone else was sleeping soundly. Every creak and clatter was magnified a hundredfold, and no matter how quiet you tried to be, the sleeping individual always woke up. Then came the apologies and subsequent reassurances that everything was alright. Even if that wasn't exactly how things would play out, it would still mean Scully fumbling in the dark for her bag or nonchalantly trying to pick through her garments while he heard—or saw, if he was still awake—everything.
Nope. It was better to go to bed together. There would be much less chance for anything remotely embarrassing to occur.
Mulder blinked, suddenly surprised at himself. He wasn't normally so self-conscious. He always acted on impulse, deciding what he wanted to do in the moment and sticking to his guns no matter how foolhardy that might be.
Yet he was second-guessing his actions and decisions, wondering if he had said the right thing or behaved appropriately in a specific moment. For some reason or another, he cared about presenting himself as the perfect house guest—even while he normally didn't care the slightest what his peers and colleagues thought of him.
It was an odd sensation—caring about such trite, social-oriented interactions. He usually only cared about Scully's opinion of him—and maybe Skinner's from time to time, so to suddenly be worried about the impression he made on people who were by and large total strangers to him—excluding Mrs. Scully—was a foreign concept to him. And yet he was determined to make a good impression.
He blinked again, leaving the conundrum unsolved, but resolved to try and remain alert for a little longer yet. If he could manage 8-hour stakeouts in the middle of the night while uncomfortably jammed into a cramped car with Scully, he shouldn't find it difficult to keep awake for another hour at least.
If only it weren't so silent….
When the group had migrated there from the dining room, they had been bursting with talk. Charlie had been rambling on about day-to-day life at the Naval base in Fort Worth with a few interjections here and there by Bill, mainly comments meant to provoke his little brother. Bill, being the eldest, held a higher rank than Charlie, and he rather liked to remind Charlie of that, sometimes exaggeratedly criticizing him for complaints he railed against his superior officers. Charlie mostly let the comments roll off his back, but he occasionally came back with a brotherly jab of his own.
As the brothers went back and forth, Tara had run back upstairs to fetch Matthew. Almost as soon as they had settled into the living room, her baby monitor went off, signaling that the one year-old was wide awake and looking for attention. She was gone for about fifteen to twenty minutes, during which time the conversation of the room had shifted to Bill overviewing the state of things in California: the political climate, sports talk, everyday life.
And finally Tara returned, reintroducing little, bright-eyed Matthew to the rest of the family again. Murmuring to her son, she wandered over to Mrs. Scully and passed him over before resuming her seat beside Mulder.
"He loves his grandma," she remarked to him with a smile before all conversation subsided into a drowsy, serene silence. It was as if with Matthew's entrance, the desire and necessity to talk had altogether abated. Those present could just enjoy the silence, and Mulder was on the verge of falling asleep.
His eyes snapped to Mrs. Scully, sitting in the living chair furthest from him. She still held Matthew, and the child squirmed happily in his grandmother's lap. He stared up at the towering Christmas tree, his eyes widened in wonder as the colorful lights danced against them. Tara chuckled at Mulder's side and reached a hand out to her left, searching for her husband. With a proud smile, Bill accepted her touch, squeezing her hand in his burly one. Seated on the lone dining chair with his back to the tree, Charlie rolled his eyes at the couple, but a small smile betrayed his delight at the sight of them.
Unable to help the little smile that made its way to his lips, Mulder's glance shifted to his partner. The smile quickly died away. Scully was staring at her nephew, but her expression was off. She was glassy-eyed and stared uncomprehendingly, her elbow perched on the armrest of the couch as she rested her chin in her open palm. Mulder suspected he could wave a hand in front of her face, and she wouldn't even blink. Her mind was in another place. He wondered if she was thinking of Emily. He wouldn't be surprised if that were true. The weekend was bound to bring up those memories repeatedly. Still unseeing, Scully raised her other hand to finger at her cross, rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger.
Movement caught Mulder's attention. His eyes flickered to one side. Mrs. Scully had been contentedly watching her grandson, but she suddenly had eyes only for her daughter. Worry lines formed at her brow as she took in her daughter's state. Unafraid of any reproach that he might be given, Mulder carefully studied the older woman, wondering if she saw the same darkness clawing at Scully: the memories of Emily's miracle arrival and unwanted departure, the questions as to whether she had been abducted and experimented on just to further a shadowy cause that would cost even more, innocent lives—the lives of children who were only born to die.
Matthew would never have to fear suffering such a fate, but how many more young children would? And Matthew was a stark reminder of that fact, as well as the miracle Scully had been unjustifiably robbed of.
Mrs. Scully's bright eyes dimmed just the slightest as a small frown set across her features. The shift in her expression confirmed Mulder's suspicions. She saw Scully's suffering, too.
And suddenly Mrs. Scully's gaze flashed from her daughter to Mulder. She was aware that he had been watching her. Mulder remained stoic, his countenance betraying nothing of his mild embarrassment at having been caught. A case of embarrassment was nothing to the pain Scully felt in that moment, and Mrs. Scully was equally aware of that fact. She nodded, indicating she was grateful for his presence and the obvious concern he had for Scully. Simultaneously, she was yielding control of the situation over to him, showing that she trusted in his judgement when it came to her daughter.
Mulder found himself slightly taken aback. She was handing him the reins? Did she really consider him worthy of that monumental responsibility? Was he so reliable—even after all the hurt he had indirectly caused?
He always wanted what was best for Scully, of course, and he believed he had an eerily-accurate grasp of Scully's mannerisms and logical mode of thinking after six years of working together, but that didn't necessarily mean he should be the one to take on that responsibility. But Mrs. Scully obviously believed otherwise and she was determinedly passing on the torch to him.
Despite his flummoxed state, Mulder found himself with newfound respect for Mrs. Scully. She had long ago proven herself to be Mulder's favorite upper-middle-aged woman. There was a dependability to her, and she almost always managed to maintain composure, even in the toughest times. Yet there was always a trace of her instinctual maternal nature. She allowed her children to lead their own lives without her imposing her will on them or passing judgment, but she always cared and she frequently worried—whether she made that known to them or not.
Mulder wondered if Scully understood exactly how much her mother took on in blind faith, trusting in the idea that she had raised exceptional, good-hearted children with the strength to tackle whatever confronted them in life. But there was always the fear and dread that something could go unbelievably wrong—as had happened in the past with her husband's unexpected death and daughter's accidental murder—yet she never asked her children to stop chasing their dreams or to cease leading the fulfilling lives they led.
Mulder suspected Scully didn't know; children rarely grasped the hardships their own parents went through in being a parent. He supposed he was hyper-sensitive to such personal scenarios, though, both because of his experience in profiling and because of his own volatile family history.
Whether or not Scully realized it, she was lucky.
And here Mrs. Scully was trusting her remaining daughter's well-being and life in his hands. She was not going to be petty like Bill, squabbling over Scully's perceived poor life choices. She was accepting her daughter for all that she was, and as unworthy as he was of it, that included him.
He nodded once, locking his eyes with hers. He wanted her to know how seriously he took her decision, and that he believed his obligation to Scully went beyond that solitary moment when she was lost in her clouded thoughts. He would always act with Scully's well-being at heart.
Mulder's eyes roved back over to his partner. She hadn't moved an inch. Lithely, he brushed his fingertips along her cardigan.
"So you haven't told me why the fox was your favorite animal," he remarked, slipping his fingers from her arm and pointing up at the nearby tree. He could just make at the orange origami figure nestled among the high branches and surrounded by the glowing Christmas lights.
Scully started at his touch, her head turning abruptly to look at him. Being so near her, he could hear her sharp intake of breath, almost like a gasp. Both her hands dropped to her lap.
"Sorry," she apologized weakly, blinking furiously as if trying to wake up from a deep sleep. "I was—" she coughed as her words had come out soundlessly—"I was lost in thought." Her voice returned to its full strength. "You asked something?"
For the briefest second, Mulder met Mrs. Scully's eyes. At least Scully was back in the world of the living.
"The fox," Mulder said again, pointing to the tree. "I was wondering why it was your favorite animal as a kid." Scully glanced over in that direction, staring up at the branches for a moment.
"I don't know," she replied with a shrug. "I suppose I thought that there was something majestic and beautiful about them. Such sleek, sharp, wily creatures capable of so much—whether it amounts to instinctual survival or just an enjoyment of life. I always remembering hearing stories from my second grade teacher when I was a girl. She told us about a time she caught a pair of fox cubs playing in her yard. She had a dog—a German Shepherd, I think—and she accidentally left one of his toy balls outside one day, and suddenly these two little foxes were having the time of their lives with the ball and each other." Scully smiled at the memory. She finally looked over to Mulder, neutrality returning to her expression. "They're curious creatures and they're fearless. I suppose I respected them for that." It was Mulder's turn to read the hidden messages in her words, and he smiled.
"Should I be flattered, Scully?" he intoned with a mischievous grin. Scully shrugged with a coy smile of her own, not giving in so easily.
"You wanted an answer, Mulder. I gave you one." Mulder let out a solitary chuckle.
"Uh-huh," he nodded, not entirely convinced by her counterstatement. "Whatever you say, Scully…." His gaze slid to lock eyes with Mrs. Scully again. She was chuckling with an amused smile on her face. To Mulder's understanding, she wasn't displeased with his methods; she might have even approved of them. No matter the truth of it, he had achieved his goal, at the very least. He smiled at her to which she nodded in return.
"Well," she announced to the room, the light in her eyes having returned, "perhaps it's time we had some coffee." She shifted forward in her chair, preparing to hand Matthew off to her son or daughter-in-law. Bill raised a hand and stood up instead.
"I'll get it, mom," he said easily. "Mattie should have some time with his grandma." He lightly ruffled his son's hair with a hand, then turned to the rest of the room. "Everyone want a cup?" There were no dissenters, she he nodded once brusquely before setting off. "I'll be back in a few minutes then."
Mulder stared at Bill's departing back, his eyes following the Navy man's trek to the open archway that lead to the spacious entrance room. An opportunity was presenting itself, and Mulder wondered whether he should grab at it. Before he had even finished his assessment, he found himself rising to his feet.
"I'll give him a hand," he said. Two sets of eyes flashed up to him in alarm. He tried to appear nonchalant, like he knew what he was doing, but truth be told, he had no idea what his plan was. He was just doing what he did best: acting on impulse, a hunch—with little to validate or verify his suppositions. He just knew he should speak to Bill in private while the chance was there.
He attempted a comforting smile to Mrs. Scully, hoping to placate her and reassure her that he intended nothing to get out of hand. She refrained from giving any reaction or cue, so Mulder continued on his way—winding around Scully while trying his utmost to avoid her gaze—and headed toward the door. She caught him by the arm as he passed by.
"Mulder…" she murmured with a firmly set frown marring her features. Mulder gaze strayed back to Bill, watching as the man disappeared into the depths of the house. He had the feeling he shouldn't risk losing a single minute with Bill, but Scully had to be tended to first. He returned to his partner, feeling the firm grip of her fingers through his sweater.
"If your brother and I are ever to see eye-to-eye..." he said to her softly, offering a cursory glance around the room to see if anyone else was listening in—not that it could really be avoided given the small space they occupied, "I need to speak with him. We need to sort things out, and to do that, I have to meet him head-on." His reasoning was sound to him, and he hoped it would be enough to convince Scully. Her expression morphed into one of incredulity.
"That's just your excuse to confront him because of your bruised male ego," she said without a hint of restraint. Mulder almost laughed; Scully never held back when it came to him, and he almost always appreciated her candor. But this time he needed her to let him go about his business. He offered a rakish grin and shrugged.
"How am I expected to fight human nature?" he questioned. "I'm not immune to all gender stereotypes, after all." He hoped his instinctual innuendos and charm would disarm Scully just that once, but she remained characteristically unflustered and sighed.
"Just…" she hesitated, choosing her words carefully, all too aware that he would more than likely ignore any advice or words of wisdom she had to give. "Just try to refrain from doing anything rash," she finally decided as she looking at him imploringly.
"When have I ever acted rashly, Scully?" he quipped exaggeratedly with a chuckle. He had intended the comment to comfort her and relieve her of her stress, but worry reflected back in her eyes. Only too well aware of how it would look, he crouched down so he could meet her eye-to-eye and reached for her hand. She frowned at him, but he couldn't tell whether it was because of the oddly intimate position he had put the two of them in while still surrounded by her family or because she was adamantly worried about him. He let those considerations slip away as he sought out the words he meant to speak. "I'm not going to let anything happen," he promised quietly. "I just want to talk and put the past behind us." He squeezed her hand gently.
"Then you'll likely need a Christmas miracle," Scully declared, sounding decidedly sure of herself.
"Well good thing you can get me in with the Big Man," Mulder returned teasingly. "Use a bit of that religious hocus pocus." Scully sighed, but a smile creeped through.
"It is so rewarding to know you have faith, Mulder," she said sarcastically. He offered her a boyish grin.
"I try." Slowly, he slipped his hand from hers and resumed following Bill's trail.
"Fox," Mrs. Scully called from behind him. He turned once more, his brows shooting up in curiosity. "There's an apple pie in the fridge," she said. "Could you make sure that gets served with the coffee?" Mulder nodded, watching her eyes carefully for any sign of an ulterior motive in her request. She smiled at him before quickly becoming distracted by Matthew as he fidgeted in her arms.
Well, I have a job to do now, Mulder thought as he strode from the room.
Mulder wandered into the kitchen, looking around curiously. He hadn't had the opportunity to visit that specific room of Mrs. Scully's house yet, and he couldn't help but wonder how it compared to her daughter's spacious kitchen. Scully was nothing if not meticulous, detail-oriented, and organized. Every utensil, pot, and pan had its proper place, and she knew them all. What's more—it was usually immaculate on the times he had visited her apartment. The few times he saw something out of place, it was usually something as simple as an unwashed water glass sitting by the sink or an abandoned tupperware container situated amongst scattered case notes on her dining room table. But such little inconsistencies were easily rectified.
Mrs. Scully's kitchen was in less pristine condition, but that was to be expected. Recently used pots and pans cluttered the sink and surrounding area. Half-emptied serving dishes littered the remaining counter space. With the number of people that had been present as Christmas dinner, as well as the number of servings each person took, he was surprised there was any food left over at all. But it looked like Mrs. Scully still had enough food for a few meals more, at least.
At least Mrs. Scully can take a break for a few days, Mulder thought. As pleased as Mrs. Scully was by the quality and reception of her meal, he doubted she was in the mood to do so much cooking again so soon. Then you have to consider the hefty shopping bill. Mulder couldn't help the scowl that crossed his features; he had arrived at her house unexpected and unannounced, and she welcomed him with open arms, unconcerned about having to place another table setting and ensure there was enough food for another body. He wondered if he should leave her some money—a crude attempt at thanking her for her generosity. Maybe I'll hide it in the sugar bowl, he mused to himself with a smile. He had been watching way too many old, black-and-white movies of late and had quickly picked up that while the mattress was always the prime money hiding spot, the sugar bowl came in at a close second place. Wouldn't that be a surprise.
His gaze swept along the cluttered countertop, wondering if Mrs. Scully might actually have a sugar bowl. She seemed the sort the have a full coffee set, and those typically included sugar and creamer containers. The clinking of cups and saucers distracted him from his search, though. Bill was carefully removing the off-white porcelain dishes them from a nearby cupboard and setting them in a neat row. It was a surprising sight. Bill didn't seem the sort to worry about such insignificant details as using a matching coffee set, but then again, he was in his mother's household, so his opinion didn't really matter. He was expected to keep to her standards as a hostess.
"What are you doing here?" Bill asked impartially, only briefly glancing in Mulder's direction as he noticed the agent watching him. Mulder realized that his unwarranted appearance must seem odd and quickly set about his prescribed task.
"Your mom asked that I get something," he explained, striding over to the fridge and pulling it open. He spotted the pie on a lower shelf and tugged at the weighty, porcelain serving dish it sat in. He could tell by the look of the crumbly, golden-colored crust that it definitely wasn't store bought.
Mrs. Scully really outdid herself, he thought, shutting the refrigerator door and sliding the dish onto a small space of open counter. He carefully scooched some of the surrounding pots and pans so that nothing risked slipping and crashing to the floor. That was the last thing he needed.
"She asked that we serve pie with the coffee," Mulder said, returning to Bill and jutting a thumb toward the pie. Bill looked from between Mulder to the pie, and his eyes narrowed, as if undecided whether he should believe him. Finally, he shrugged and returned to sorting out the dishware, this time removing some dessert plates and forks, as well.
"You go and join the others," he said, doing surprisingly well at keeping composed despite the fact that he was in such close quarters with a man he shamelessly hated. "I'll handle it." He spoke with a sense of finality, a tone only a commander in the military would use. He expected his order to be heard and followed to the letter. But Mulder wasn't one of his recruits, and Mulder wasn't that kind of man.
"Listen, Bill," Mulder said, remaining in position beside the kitchen counter. He ensured his stance remained non-combative, his arms relaxing to his sides; he didn't want Bill thinking that he was looking for a fight. "I know you have a problem with me. You couldn't have made that plainer if you wanted to. And I think I know why, too." Bill ceased in his movements. For a moment, the only sound was the bubbling and boiling coffee as it steeped in the nearby pot. The Navy man turned with a grim, almost taunting smile.
"You don't know the half of it, Mr. Mulder," he said stonily.
So we're back to that, huh? Mulder thought, having to keep himself from rolling his eyes. Bill really couldn't let go of a grudge—no matter how many years it had been and how unlikely anything was to change.
"I think I do. We've gone over it all before," Mulder said straight-forwardly, seeing no benefit in beating around the bush. He might have sounded a bit cocky, but he knew all the old issues Bill held against him. "You don't like Scully being with me—working with me," he hastily amended. "You're worried for her safety and the danger I pose to her." He kept his tone level, unwilling to let past fears and incidents affect his demeanor. Bill really didn't need to know how frequently Mulder worried over that last point himself. The other man crossed his arms, that sneering smile returning to his face.
"Like I said, Mr. Mulder, you only know half of it."
"So what am I missing?" Mulder asked lazily.
"I know you're a danger to Dana, and I know she's not willing to give you up even when your pointless quest threatens to swallow her whole. She indicated as much in that hospital room two years ago." Bill paused for a moment, intermittently taking in and releasing a few breaths. "You know, Dana respects and cares for you in a way I've never seen from her before. It's almost like she's determined not to disappoint you, so she keeps fighting. She feels responsible for you." His throat tightened, his words coming out low and threatening.
"Scully does what she wants," Mulder responded, attempting to wave away any unfounded accusation Bill might come up with based on his assertions. "I have no say in that." But Mulder wondered on Bill's final statement, asking himself whether Scully only fought on his behalf. He quickly banished the thought. That might have been what Bill thought, but Scully had her own questions she needed answered. Her actions went beyond any possible debt she felt she might owe him; she fought for herself, too.
"You say that," Bill started, "but she keeps fighting for you—even when there are other things she should be concerned about. Her health for one, her own well-being. When she was sick with cancer yet stupidly determined to keep up with you." Mulder sighed; he couldn't fault Bill on that point.
"I tried to talk Scully out of it. I recommended she take things slow...both when she awakened from her coma and after her cancer diagnosis," he added before Bill could use her previous abduction against him. He shrugged. "Scully wanted to work. You expect me to go against her wishes?"
"I expect you to do what's best for her, Mr. Mulder," Bill returned forcefully. "I thought we had an understanding about that—that chasing your little green men wasn't worth my sister's life. Especially since your quest already took Melissa from us."
"And I told you that I know what that kind of suffering is like," Mulder fired right back. "We've all lost loved ones. At this point, Scully and I are trying to bring those guilty parties to justice. Wouldn't you rather have Melissa's murderers in hand?"
"So how many of these men have you succeeded in convicting?" Bill asked stonily. Mulder dropped his gaze, refraining from taking up Bill's bait—his attempt to ridicule him. But Bill's question still prickled at him; it was a stark reminder at how little he had accomplished in eight years on the X-Files. "Exactly, Mr. Mulder. You aren't doing a damn thing."
"It isn't that easy," Mulder said quietly, attempting to rally to his own defense. "We're dealing with a covert organization of shadowy figures who masquerade as government officials and control every aspect of modern day life. This conspiracy goes into the literal depths of our government, and they've blocked every one of our efforts to dismantle them."
"You're borderline treasonous, Mr. Mulder," Bill warned him. It only spurred Mulder on.
"Hundreds if not thousands have suffered and died at these men's hands," he stated with more fervor than before. "Scully and I have both made sacrifices. Your whole family has. Unnecessary sacrifices." His speech increased in rapidity as the thoughts flew through his head. "So what do we do? Let these mysterious figures continually pull the puppet strings of our lives? Scully and I are trying to see this out, ensure that justice is served, and that can't always be done in courtrooms."
"So now you promote anarchy?" Bill scoffed. "Delivering your own brand of justice for crimes these supposed men have perpetrated?"
"Because that's the only way to sort this out!" Mulder insisted. "We've tried to do so through legal channels. Scully will back me on this—"
"I don't think I want to hear Dana's explanation for why she goes along with your idiocy," Bill cut him off, shaking his head. "She's smarter than this…." His gaze suddenly shifted to Mulder again. "You really do just get better and better, don't you, Mr. Mulder?" he said darkly. "And here I thought it was all about the little green aliens…."
"It's so much more than that," Mulder noted despondently. "And at this point, it goes beyond my sister's abduction. That's just one piece of the puzzle." He looked up at Bill imploringly.
He wasn't entirely sure why he was being so candid about everything. He really shouldn't be. Such talk was putting his job in jeopardy. Not to mention he was potentially putting Bill at risk by giving up information on the conspirators' plans and dealings. But Mulder hoped that in sharing a glimpse of the truth, Bill would come around. He would understand that Mulder wasn't acting out some personal death wish for either himself or Scully, intentionally and repeatedly putting the two of them in immediate danger. After so many years and uncovering so many elements of the conspirators' plots, Mulder had no choice but to continue along the path—not only for his own benefit but to justify the sacrifices of those killed throughout the years. Learning the truth, sharing that truth—finally foiling the conspiracy of silence that had worked for decades to cloak it behind fictitious events—that was what he was determined to do. That was his goal.
"Mr. Mulder," Bill said seriously, obviously unmoved by Mulder's attempts to relate, "you realize that right now I could phone your superior and have your position at the FBI terminated? Not only because of this conspiracy bullshit you're spewing at me, but because of the potentially sensitive information you're sharing with me."
"I know," Mulder replied blankly, unwilling to give Bill the satisfaction of seeing him unsettled—even while he was treading on fairly dangerous ground. Every muscle in his body had gone taut; he felt like he was waiting for the sound of a blow horn to begin running a marathon. The seconds ticked by slowly as the two men stared unwaveringly at one another. They were trapped in a moment of pure anticipation.
Finally, Bill sighed, his bluff called.
"I won't do it..." he admitted, "out of respect for Dana." He wanted Mulder to know exactly where his loyalties lay.
The immediate danger having passed, Mulder felt the tension in his stance dissipate. In hindsight, he suspected Bill wouldn't have gotten very far in his complaints anyway. Skinner and the other higher ups in the Bureau had dealt with his outlandish, "borderline treasonous" theories for years. Once they had finally had enough, they just ignored him and relegated him to the basement.
"I'm sure Dana appreciates that," Mulder returned in an exaggerated, sarcastic tone. He knew Scully could handle herself and didn't need to look to her overbearing brother for protection. Bill shook his head and barked out a laugh.
"I really shouldn't be, but I'm constantly surprised by you," he remarked. "You just keep calm and cocky no matter what comes your way. No wonder you're able to handle all the destruction that seems to follow in your wake. I mean, whenever you show up something bad always seems to accompany you. The first time, it was Dana's cancer, then it was that little girl last year, and this time you come in talking about some stupid story where you almost killed one another. And it all just rolls right off your back." Since his attempted threat had failed, Bill was intentionally trying to provoke him now.
"Don't presume to know me," Mulder shook his head. His tone was deadly serious.
"I'm waiting for the day when you show up on my doorstep and tell me Dana's dead," Bill pressed. The final nail in the coffin. Mulder felt a shiver climb up his spine. He had dealt with that very prospect far more often than he would have liked. The memory of Scully trapped on that extraterrestrial vessel in Antarctica flashed before his mind's eye.
"I don't intend that to happen," Mulder said, shaking his head again and wishing he sounded more sure of himself. But he really couldn't imagine a world where Scully was dead. He remembered the time when Linda Bowman, Robert Patrick Modell's sister, "pushed" Scully into killing herself. That image of Scully lying crumpled on the ground was emblazoned in his brain—even while it was a lie. "I promise you that I would never purposefully let something happen to her." He made sure Bill could hear the vehemence in his tone.
"Intended or not, it could," Bill replied. "You can't deny that—unless you've developed the ability to predict the future, too." The taunting, cruel smile returned.
"Scully's her own woman. She joins me of her own volition. I can't push her into doing something she rather wouldn't. I've never been able to influence her in that way."
"Well, maybe you should," Bill returned sharply. "Maybe you should convince her otherwise—before she winds up dead at your feet because of something you started." Mulder smiled grimly.
"Even if I were to try and convince her, she wouldn't listen. And trust me, I've tried." Bill seemed authentically surprised by Mulder's last statement. His eyes narrows and his brows furrowed.
"Have you?" he asked.
"I told her to leave me," Mulder admitted without the slightest hesitation. "I told her to go be a doctor and live a full, respectable life—away from little green man and life-endangering partners." The dark humor was meant to be self-deprecating, but Bill only looked suspicious.
"And what did she say?"
"I believe her exact words were, 'If I quit now, they win.'" Bill sighed, his eyes dropping to the tiled floor beneath his feet. That had not been the answer he was hoping for.
"How long ago was this?" he asked neutrally.
"A couple months back," Mulder replied. "After she was administered a lethal virus and abducted to a compound in Antarctica." Bill didn't need to know all the details of Scully's most recent kidnapping, and Mulder sensed that Bill wouldn't go about accusing him of giving up government secrets this time. Not when it concerned his sister. "I was given a cure and tipped off on her location, so I recklessly embarked on a one-man rescue mission, and miraculously, I succeeded." He allowed the shadow of a proud smile to play at his lips. So much for Bill's constant allegations that he regularly put Scully's life in danger without any consideration for her well-being.
"You did that alone?" Bill asked redundantly, clearly stunned at Mulder's resolve.
"Yeah," Mulder nodded. "And once we were cleared for active duty following a two week-long hospital stay, I about begged her to leave."
"I told you she feels responsible for you…" Bill commented unhelpfully.
"Trust me, it's not in the way I'd like." Mulder smiled grimly again. But despite the bleak turn of conversation, he finally felt like he was getting somewhere with Bill. They were finding common ground and slowly coming to understand one another better.
"It's really not in the way I'd like either, Mr. Mulder," Bill agreed with a sharp nod. Bill's manner suddenly had Mulder reconsidering his assessment; there was something else Bill still had yet to mention. "Like I said," he continued, "Dana's taking responsibility for you first and foremost." He shoved his hands into his pockets and scuffed his shoe along the ground, attempting to streak away a dirty spot. "She doesn't seem to think of her own health or the well-being of the rest of the family."
"That not true," Mulder immediately said with a small smile, silently wondering what Bill was getting at. He knew beyond a doubt that Scully constantly thought on her family and ensuring their safety.
"It is," Bill contradicted. "And honestly, I think it's something that hasn't even crossed your mind."
"What's that?" Mulder asked, inadvertently curious. He figured Bill must have some sort of ace up his sleeve, some trick to try and trip him up. He wouldn't go accusing his sister of being so heartless unless he had an ulterior motive.
"You dragged Dana with you on this quest rooting out your imaginary hidden evils, and you tell me yourself people are getting killed for it," Bill stated, looking to Mulder for confirmation. Mulder nodded affirmatively. "Have you even realized that you're not only putting Dana's life in jeopardy, but also that of my wife, my son, and my mother? We've already lost Melissa."
"Melissa's death was not an attempt to get back at Scully and me," Mulder interjected.
"She was killed in Dana's apartment with an untraceable firearm, and there was no evidence of an intruder." Bill stated the facts of the case slowly and assuredly. "That sounds like a hit to me."
"It's my belief that she wasn't the intended target," Mulder refuted. "They had been looking to eliminate Scully. Melissa was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"That doesn't change things," Bill said shaking his head. "Melissa's still dead. And your father—if what you say is true. Another warning from your mystery men that you blatantly disregarded?" Mulder sighed. He didn't want to seem cold-hearted and callous by talking about the dead so flippantly, but he was trying to address Bill's claims in a detached, level-headed manner.
How does Scully manage this?
"My father was killed for specific reasons only pertaining to him," Mulder explained vaguely. "He was targeted because the conspiracy sought to silence him."
"Sounds like your father ran in the same circles you do," Bill remarked. Mulder chuckled.
"Something like that…" he agreed before returning to Bill with newfound vigor. "My point is that these men don't condone unnecessary killing. They kill when it suits their purposes."
"And if Dana had sensitive information pertaining to this conspiracy and threatened to present it, my family would be the perfect ransom. Our lives for her silence." Mulder shook his head.
"Your deaths would only validate our claims that there is a secret government conspiracy perpetuating lies and consistently misdirecting the general public. Because of your relationship to Scully, if any of you were killed, they would only draw attention to themselves, and their entire operation would be forfeit."
"Unless they adequately cleaned up the crime scene," Bill pointed out.
"Which they have done in the past," Mulder assented. "They've also tried to have Scully and myself killed. Lucky for us, they've repeatedly failed." He smiled slightly at the Navy man.
"If they're afraid to draw attention to themselves, why try to kill you? Why kidnap Dana?" Mulder shifted his stance some, placing the brunt of his weight against the other foot.
"Because—unlike you—we've seen too much. Better to let us see a little and run around like Chicken Little claiming the sky is falling to the disbelieving masses than see too much and come forward with irrefutable evidence. Scully and I are on the cusp of putting the pieces together, and they needed leverage to shut me up, to prevent me from exposing them. So they took Scully." Speaking his last statement aloud left a bitter taste in his mouth. He hated being the cause of Scully's suffering. Bill crossed his arms.
"So all that talk—your entire argument—is invalid, Mr. Mulder," he stated evenly. "They are willing to kill anybody who gets in their way." Mulder sighed.
"Yes," he admitted, "but they only act when it's beneficial to them. I can't tell you the criteria they use to determine which deaths are profitable and which are negligible. I mean, they've tried to kill me and Scully, but they've also allowed us to live at times. Their perspective is constantly shifting, as is their willingness to take certain drastic measures." He took in a couple breaths before continuing on. "I can tell you with certainty that they're always watching; they know exactly how people are related or connected to one another, they know individuals' weaknesses, their routines, their habits, whatever." Mulder chuckled. "Big Brother's watching, and if you rattle enough cages, they'll remove you from the equation."
"So that means that anyone remotely associated with you—whether it's the kid who delivers your paper or your direct superior—is potentially in the line of fire. We could all be black-bagged and dragged away into oblivion one day."
"And that's why these men must be removed from power," Mulder nodded. Whether or not Bill actually believed him, he was taking the matter very seriously. Better to err on the side of caution than of ignorance, after all. And he had seen how frequently Scully found herself in potentially dangerous situations, so he knew—to some extent—that an outside threat could be very real.
"It all comes back to what I said at the start, Mr. Mulder," Bill noted after a few moment's silence. "You've talked us right in a circle. Because of Dana's involvement with you, my family is in a permanent state of danger."
"And whether she stays me or not is her prerogative," Mulder reminded him. "If Scully weren't happy with her position or our partnership, she could request reassignment. And I guarantee you that her request would be immediately granted if she did so," he added for Bill's benefit, guessing that the man would question whether her request would be denied because of her close association with him. "Scully is invaluable to the Bureau with her medical expertise and field experience. I'm sure other divisions wouldn't pass up the chance to get her in their department," Mulder said kindly. He didn't want Bill thinking that Scully was a rebellious, reckless black sheep. More often than not, she was the one reining Mulder back from tearing off into the darkness without the slightest idea of where to go. Bill frowned, and Mulder could practically hear him asking himself why Dana never put in for that transfer. "I can't dictate what your sister does," Mulder said simply. "And neither should you." His final sentence came across more forceful, an attempt to remind Bill that he shouldn't judge Scully and her life choices. The words struck a nerve in Bill.
"I'm trying to keep my family safe," he fired back. "It's more than you or Dana try to do!"
Low blow, Mulder thought with a wince. He wasn't entirely sure what he should answer with; he felt that anything he said could potentially set Bill off, then suddenly the perfect response hit him.
"Every life, every day is in danger. That's just life."
"What?" Bill asked, his face setting into a confused expression.
"My boss told me that," Mulder explained. "When Scully was in her coma."
"What does that have to do with this?" Bill persisted.
"People might wind up ill or dead, and we might kick ourselves, thinking we're to blame, but that's just life. We all die."
It was morbid talk, and Mulder knew it. But Bill was being resilient in laying blame at his—and subsequently Scully's—feet. He wasn't letting up, and he really needed to back off if relationships were ever to progress forward. And that meant he might need to learn a hard lesson.
"You don't think your mother knows the danger she might be in?" Mulder honestly asked, trying a different tactic to get through to Bill, though it wasn't one he really wanted to use. "The mother of an FBI agent and two Navy men? Scully is constantly in the field, and you could be deployed and sent out to active combat at any time. That means at any time, and for whatever reason, the three of you could die. It's the nature of your careers." He allowed the words to sink in for a moment before continuing. "What's more, that means that the three of you could be prone to making enemies who hold grudges: a recruit you pushed too far or someone Scully put away. And those people might come after your loved ones—your mother, your wife, your son. If you enter into that sort of life, you have to accept the potential consequences."
"So I should just let fate take its course?" Bill asked incredulously.
"You should accept the life you chose," Mulder responded. "And you should realize that death can claim us at any moment."
"When it comes to my family—" Bill fumed, stepping nearer.
"When it comes to your father!" Mulder thundered over him. Bill immediately shut up. "Ever since your father died, you've been trying to fill his shoes—trying to make sure nothing so tragic happens again. But that's life! Tragedy happens, and we all face it daily! You want to keep your family together—and that's a commendable goal—but it's one that can't be accomplished by you clinging to the shadow of your father." His tirade over, Mulder gave himself a moment to catch his breath. He swallowed. "Your family doesn't need the ghost of your father assessing and judging their lives through your eyes."
Bill stood there still and silent as stone. In the absolute quiet, Mulder finally noticed that the coffee had finished brewing. He wondered how long it had been sitting there cooling as they went back and forth. He kind of wished it would magically come back on; the bubbling and gurgling of the coffee pot had been a comforting noise, grounding the two of them in reality. Without anything to serve as a reminder of where they were and what was occurring, someone was liable to snap. And sure enough….
Bill's arm reared back and he swung. Mulder juked to his right, and Bill's hand glanced off his temple just in line with his eye. He felt a sharp stab of pain in his head, but couldn't give up an advantage. As Bill completed the arc of his swing, Mulder rammed a fist into his stomach. The burly man keeled over gasping for breath, and Mulder circled around him, locking an arm around his throat, before throwing himself backwards.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Mulder yelled as Bill fought against his headlock. Despite Bill's attempt to throw him off, Mulder didn't let up. He couldn't risk Bill getting loose and starting an all-out brawl. But the guy wouldn't submit. Mulder was forced to tighten his hold, hoping that a lack of oxygen would make him more agreeable. He felt a wet, sticky substance start to flow down the side of his face.
At least it wasn't a knockout punch, Mulder thought incidentally.
Scully ran into the room with Charlie hot on her heels.
"Mulder!" she cried in alarm. She sounded like she was simultaneously questioning and berating him. She stared at him for all the world like he'd gone mad, a look he was uncomfortably familiar with.
"I'll let him go as soon as he agrees not to take another swipe at me," Mulder grunted as he grappled with Bill. The man was definitely weakening, either because he finally saw the futility of fighting or because Mulder's chokehold was taking effect.
"What's going on?" Tara asked in dismay as she froze in the doorway alongside her mother-in-law. Mrs. Scully was still holding Matthew.
"Stay back for now," Scully cautioned as she hovered by Mulder's side. Charlie rounded in front of Bill, ready to grab his brother in case he should lunge back toward Mulder. "Bill, relax," Scully commanded, setting a hand against her brother's arm. "Mulder's going to let you go." She turned to lock eyes with Mulder, and he nodded. In one swift movement, Mulder released his hold, raising his hands to his sides in show that he didn't mean to continue things any further. Bill staggered toward Charlie, coughing and shaking his head vigorously at the sudden ability to breath normally again. Charlie caught him by the chest and pounded him on the back as Tara immediately raced over to her husband.
Mrs. Scully remained in the doorway, observing the sight with cautious eyes while Matthew looked around curiously. After a cursory glance over Bill's form, Scully turned toward Mulder.
"What happened?" she asked softly, taking his head in her hands and tilting it so she could get a look at the gash along his temple.
"Your brother and I were working out our differences." Scully reached into a nearby drawer for a clean kitchen towel and began to dab lightly at the wound. Mulder let out a hiss. Each time she pulled the towel away, he saw the crimson splotch grow bigger and redder.
"What did you say to him?" she tried again.
"The truth," he vaguely answered.
"Which was?" she pressed, quickly getting frustrated with his overt attempts to avoid the question.
"That Bill doesn't need to try and be your father." Scully stopped tending to him. She lowered the cloth and finally looked Mulder in the eye. Her expression was initially unreadable, but steadily softened. While Scully normally didn't like having other interfere in her affairs, she was appreciative of his attempt. He didn't need to say anything to Bill—and honestly he really shouldn't have—but Scully realized that things weren't likely to change unless something drastic was done.
"I'm not sure whether this qualifies as a Christmas miracle," she quipped as she returned to his wound. He noticed the smallest of smiles grace her features for a few seconds. "But the cut isn't deep." She brushed at it one more time. "You won't require stitches, but I should look at it more closely."
"I think I took a knuckle to the temple," Mulder said, gingerly touching the area around the wound. "He threw a punch at me." She nodded, pulling his hand away.
"It looks like it," she agreed with a sigh. "Be thankful it's not a few inches over, though, otherwise blood would be pouring into your eye."
"As opposed to all over my face?" Mulder returned. She rolled her eyes and handed the towel to him.
"Hold this on it," she ordered before walking over to the sink. She returned with a handful of wet paper towels and ran them along his face, cleaning up the streaks of fresh blood that covered him.
"Thanks, Scully," he said once she had finished up. He had considered coming back with a witty one-liner, but ultimately felt it wasn't really the time or the place. Not after what had just happened. Scully peeked under the cloth he held against his brown then replaced it.
"It's looking better," she nodded before looking over toward her brother. "Is there anything else you did to Bill?" she asked, resting her hands on her hips.
"I might have punched him in the stomach," Mulder admitted hesitantly. Scully reached up and pressed his hand more firmly against the towel.
"Keep that to your head while I go check on Bill. Hopefully the bleeding will have stopped when I get back." Without another word, she crossed the kitchen.
Mulder stared at the sight of the Scully children all huddled together. Bill was leaning back against the kitchen counter, letting out a few raspy coughs. Charlie stood at his side with his arms crossed as he talked to his elder brother while Tara looked him over in worry. Once Scully arrived, Tara backed off and Charlie dropped his arms to his sides, looking more disappointed than anything. Scully tried to look Bill over, but he waved her off. A look of aggravation crossing her features, she argued with him. Bill wasn't having it, though. He fired back at her, and Charlie was forced to step in to try and mediate the situation.
I guess Bill wasn't far off the mark. I really am one sorry son of a bitch, Mulder thought looking at the havoc he had inadvertently wrought. He repositioned the towel against his wound.
"Fox?" Mulder looked over to his side. Mrs. Scully hesitantly stepped up. Matthew stared up at him with wide eyes before looking over toward his father and reaching out in that direction.
"Hey, Mrs. Scully," Mulder smiled grimly. He didn't want to look her in the eyes. In going to confront Bill, he knew he was playing with fire, but he thought the reward was worth the risk. Apparently, he had been wrong. "I'm sorry about all this," he apologized.
"Are you alright, Fox?" she asked, ignoring his attempted apology.
"Yeah," Mulder nodded. "Scully will patch me up, and I'll be good as new. I've taken worse hits." He repositioned the cloth again. "She's checking on Bill now," he added for good measure despite the fact that she could see that for herself.
"I feel I should apologize for Bill's behavior," Mrs. Scully said much to Mulder's surprise. "He's not usually so coarse." Mulder immediately shook his head.
"No, no," he disagreed. "It's fine. I'm to blame for this. I shouldn't have been here to begin with. In fact, I think I should go so I don't risk ruining your holidays any further."
"No, Fox. Stay." Mulder shook his head.
"I-I can't do that with a good conscience, Mrs. Scully."
"Stay, Fox," she repeated. "My children are stubborn." She briefly glanced over at the group of them. "You should know that working with Dana. It takes them time to come around."
"It's coming on two years. I don't think Bill will ever come around at this point."
"Maybe not to like you," Mrs. Scully agreed, "but he'll at least have to accept you. You are part of Dana's life—and my life by extension, Fox. I wouldn't have you go if Dana wants you here." Mulder was still skeptical. He felt ill at ease taking advantage of Mrs. Scully's generosity under the circumstances, and he worried he had permanently damaged Scully's relationship with her brother.
He didn't get a chance to voice his concerns.
"He won't let me look at him," Scully sighed as she approached the two of them. "He insists he's fine."
"I'll try to talk to him," Mrs. Scully offered looking between the two of them before walking off with Matthew. Scully turned to look at Mulder again, taking the cloth from him and looking at the wound. She delicately fingered the area around it.
"Let's get you upstairs. The bathroom has better lighting," she remarked. As she drew her hand away, Mulder caught her by the wrist.
"Scully, I'm not sure I should stay here," he remarked. "I've just about ruined your mom's dinner, and I think I only made things worse between your brother and me." She looked over to her brother, now talking stubbornly with his mother.
"He'll have to deal with it," she said defiantly, her blue eyes flashing back toward his. "Come on. I think I have some butterfly stitches in my medical bag." She tugged at the fabric of his shirt. Mulder did as he was told, but continued his protests.
"I honestly wouldn't mind, Scully. I'll take the car, find a motel for the night, and pick you up tomorrow morning. You can enjoy the rest of your holiday in peace." She mounted the stairs leading to the second floor, and he kept right on her heels.
"It's better for you to stay, Mulder," she refuted. "I'd rather have you somewhere I can keep an eye on you. In case that knock on the head turns out to be something more." She looked back at him, nodding to the cut along his temple. Mulder had the distinct feeling Scully was exaggerating the circumstances, trying to come up with the viable reason for him to stay other than outright asking him to. Likely because she knew he would reject any such offer.
She stopped suddenly on the stairs and spun around.
"Charlie!" she called. A few moments later, her youngest brother poked his head around the corner.
"Could you get my medical bag from the trunk of the car?" she asked. "I need to patch Mulder up." Charlie nodded agreeably. "The keys are in my coat pocket," she added. Charlie signaled back to her with a thumbs up, and Scully continued her way up the stairs.
Marching down the hall, she flipped on the bathroom light and gestured Mulder in first.
"Scully, it's really not that bad," Mulder said raising his hands and shaking his head. "It'll heal on its own."
"Just let me take care of it," Scully insisted, unwilling to back down. With a sigh, Mulder walked into the bathroom. "Sit down so I can get a better look at you," Scully ordered him, pointing to the toilet. He did as he she asked, turning his head to better accommodate her.
"How's your brother?" Mulder asked, feeling it was the suitable thing to do.
"Based on a limited visual examination," Scully said distractedly as she focused on his cut, "he's fine. He might have a few bruises on his neck, but his breathing seems normal." She met his eyes. "I think you just took him by surprise. He's not used to losing a fight like that."
"So was my besting your brother just as thrilling as I imagined?" Mulder teased. He couldn't help falling back on routine. Scully rolled her eyes.
"I'm just happy I don't have to reset any broken bones. I can handle a few cuts and bruises." Charlie appeared in the doorway with a bright red medical get.
"Here you go, Dana," he said, handing it over to Scully.
"Thanks, Charlie," she replied before he disappeared again. She set the bag on the edge of the vanity and zipped it open.
"Come on," Mulder prompted as she dug through the bag's contents. "You can't tell me you weren't a little impressed." Scully removed a brown hydrogen peroxide bottle and set it to one side, then looked him in the eyes.
"I'm impressed you showed the restraint you did," she admitted sincerely. "I'd been worried the two of you were going to break into a fight two minutes into your conversation." She cast her eyes down to the tiled floor. "Bill can be overly aggressive like that."
"I didn't want to hurt him," Mulder conceded, shaking his head slowly. "I just wanted to talk. Get our issues out in the open and hopefully sort through them." Scully smirked.
"I'm not sure how much good that did," she said, pulling out a cotton ball and a couple butterfly closures.
"Every man's got to have a scar or two to show off," Mulder grinned suggestively. "How else are we supposed to attract women? Our inherent wit and charm?" Scully chuckled lightly as she placed the cotton ball to the top of the hydrogen peroxide bottle and tipped it over.
"Good thing you're a full package, Mulder," she replied coyly. Mulder's face about fell in shock at the compliment before he let out an audible hiss when she rubbed the alcohol-soaked cotton ball against the cut. "Except for that low pain tolerance, of course."
"Ouch, Scully!" Mulder groaned exaggeratedly. "That stung!"